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December 08, 2008
He turned a pool in Beijing into the center of the universe, captivating millions with his exhilarating achievements. Now he's using his fame to get more kids swimming safely and to promote his sport as more than a once-every-four-years event
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December 08, 2008

Michael Phelps

He turned a pool in Beijing into the center of the universe, captivating millions with his exhilarating achievements. Now he's using his fame to get more kids swimming safely and to promote his sport as more than a once-every-four-years event

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Though he's used to getting mobbed at swimcentric events such as the Golden Goggles, Phelps has only come to understand the magnitude of his new fame as he has ventured into the wider world over the last few months. "The after-party at the MTV awards was a tent with a thousand people in it," says Phelps's longtime agent, Peter Carlisle. "When Michael walked in, there was this incredible crush. The security people looked a little panicky, and they quickly hustled Michael into the VIP room. There were maybe 100 people in there, and a significant number of them you recognized immediately. Again, same thing—nonstop autographs and pictures. So the security guys grab Michael again and take him to what I guess was the VVIP area. There's about a dozen people in there, and it's definitely A-list: Paris Hilton, the Jonas brothers, Demi Moore, people like that. When we get in there, it's like, Ah, now we can take a breath. Then the same thing happened again. He's just instantly surrounded, and out come the cameras and pens! Michael just looked at me like, 'Man, can you believe this?' It was pretty surreal."

Phelps remains admirably down to earth, but he is not above occasionally cashing in on his new celebrity. Having burned innumerable hours between training sessions playing online poker, he eagerly accepted an offer from the Maloof brothers, the Las Vegas casino magnates, to host him and two dozen friends for an ultimate guys' weekend shortly after Beijing. Along for the ride was Steve Skeen, a friend since fourth grade who now works in his family's construction business in Baltimore. "The whole VIP treatment, that was something new," says Skeen. Phelps usually brings his trademark intensity to the poker table—on another visit to Vegas, in October, he finished ninth in a field of 187 contestants—but accompanied by his entourage he was happy to relax among his admirers, who ranged from cocktail waitresses in Playboy bunny outfits to glistening sunbathers by the pool. "There was definitely more female attention," says Skeen. "Michael is a shy guy in general, but he was having fun with it."

It is a sign of his crossover appeal that Phelps's love life has been chronicled by the mainstream gossip purveyors. In October had a couple of pictures of him squiring a former Miss California USA contestant. Last month People (which included him on its recent list of the Sexiest Men Alive) reported that he has been dating a Vegas cocktail waitress, and some racy pictures showing her heavily tattooed torso quickly made the rounds on the Internet. Phelps is embarrassed by this kind of attention, and forcing a laugh at the inevitable follow-up, he says, "I'm single. That's the million-dollar question everyone seems to want answered."

AFTER PHELPS won his record eight golds, Carlisle told The Wall Street Journal that the accomplishment would be worth $100 million to Phelps in lifetime endorsements. The deals are already rolling in. In addition to his pre-Olympic contracts with AT&T, Hilton, Kellogg's and Omega, Phelps has signed to endorse Disney, Guitar Hero, Hewlett-Packard and Subway among others.

Phelps is extremely loyal to all of his sponsors, but there's no doubt which endorsement he's most excited about. He recently signed with an Italian company that will develop a video game starring his likeness. "How cool is that?" Phelps says, sounding like a big kid, which in many ways he still is. "I grew up playing video games, and I can't say I ever thought I'd see one featuring a swimmer." The game is still in the conceptual stage, but, Phelps says, "it's not going to be just boring laps in a pool; there will be a rescue element and some other things people might not expect."

Even as his business portfolio expands, Phelps's only recent splurge has been new rims and a new grill for his 2007 black Range Rover. Bowman bought Phelps's previous Rover at a deep discount, and the coach says, "I had to de-pimp it. I took off the running boards, lightened the tint on the windows and removed that ridiculous sound system. I didn't really need it to listen to NPR."

In the fall of 2007 Phelps spent $1.7 million on a four-story bachelor pad with expansive views of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but he is still getting moved in, to say the least. The walls are bare, though a lot of sports memorabilia—his and that of other athletes—is piled up on the floor. He has a mattress but no bed frame, and the rest of the furniture consists basically of a dining table and an old couch. "I would like to trick out the pad," he says in hip-hop inflected patois, "but I haven't been home for more than a few days in a row since the Olympics, so it hasn't happened yet." He has his eye on a five-by-nine-foot flat-screen television that would nearly cover one wall, but his only recent purchases have been junk food in bulk at Costco. (Rice Krispie Treats appear to be a staple of his diet.)

Furnishing the house may pose some challenges, but getting resettled in Baltimore is made easier by a core group of friends that go back to high school and before. By now they're inured to Phelps's success—after all, the guy threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game when he was 15, after becoming the U.S.'s youngest male Olympian in 68 years. "I was on Facebook the other day," says Erin Lears, a lifelong friend and the daughter of Phelps's former swim teacher, "and the top two fan groups were Barack Obama and Michael Phelps. It's like, Huh?" Having grown up swimming with Phelps and watching him compete, Lears was immunized against the Phelps fever that swept the country during the Olympics. "Honestly, it felt like another swim meet to me," she says. "It was just Michael doing his thing. Yet again."

But blasé intimates aside, it is hard to overstate the civic pride Phelps has brought to Baltimore. In October some 30,000 locals turned out in neighboring Towson for a parade in his honor. A few weeks later Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dressed as Phelps for Halloween. (Lacking the courage to don a Speedo, Flacco went with an Olympic jacket and faux gold medals.) It was three days after the presidential election that the Baltimore Sun broke the news of Phelps's new business relationship with Meadowbrook, bumping an Obama story off page one. "Michael is as big a franchise for us as the Orioles or Ravens," says the Sun's assistant managing editor for sports, Tim Wheatley.

It takes the perspective of another Baltimore sports idol and native son to truly explain the ardor. "We're tickled to death he's come home," says Cal Ripken Jr., the Hall of Fame infielder who was born in nearby Havre de Grace, spent 21 seasons with the Orioles and still resides in suburban Baltimore. "Sports has a unique way of branding a city, and Michael has brought that pride. He has become a worldwide symbol of excellence, of achievement, and he's ours. We claim him."

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